A Separate Peace showcases the process of identity formation. Gene makes his way through several identities in an attempt to define himself in relation to his surroundings. Although he experiments with multiple personas (the athlete, the intellectual, the daredevil, etc.), the most prominent identity that he adopts is arguably that of Finny’s best friend. Investing himself in their friendship, Gene closely associates himself with Finny, feeling proud that he’s his closest friend. However, defining oneself in relation to somebody else doesn’t actually lead to the formation of a unique identity, which is perhaps why Gene eventually tries to define himself in opposition to Finny, a decision that not only harms Finny but also puts a strain on their friendship. After distancing himself from Finny through an unpremeditated act of violence, Gene finds himself trying in vain to make up for his behavior, suddenly even further from establishing his own sense of self than he was before. As a result, Gene is alone and unsure of himself after Finny dies, since he has yet to establish a substantial identity that exists in and of itself. By highlighting this process, then, Knowles stresses the importance of learning to accept oneself on one’s own terms.
Gene idolizes Finny, respecting his athletic prowess, freewheeling charm, and easygoing nature. Because of this appreciation, he cherishes their friendship, as if he can hardly believe that he, out of everyone, has become Finny’s best friend. In other words, he has willingly defined himself in relation to Finny, delighting in the fact that everyone sees him as Finny’s closest friend. This, however, means prioritizing what Finny wants over what Gene himself wants, as is the case when Gene agrees to jump off the tree overhanging the river every night in order to please Finny. Each night, the boys assemble the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, a club they established. To kick off the meetings, Finny and Gene jump off the tree, and though Gene never wants to do this, he ignores his reservations because he knows he would “lose face” with Finny if he refused to jump. In fact, losing Finny’s approval is such an upsetting idea to him that he never even voices his true feelings about the tradition. In turn, readers see that Gene isn’t comfortable enough in his own skin to bear Finny’s disapproval. After all, Finny is more than just Gene’s best friend—he’s the person Gene has based his entire identity upon. Accordingly, to go against Finny would be to go against himself.
Surprisingly enough, though, Gene actually does go against Finny after deciding that they’re secret rivals. Convinced that Finny doesn’t want him to succeed, he suddenly sees himself as a competitor, somebody who poses a threat to Finny’s position as the school’s most respected, well-liked student. In this regard, he predicates his identity on the supposed difference between Finny and himself, setting himself in opposition to his best friend as a way of establishing a sense of self-worth and independence. This mindset is what leads him to send Finny falling to the ground one night during the Suicide Society’s tree-jump, effectively destroying Finny’s athletic career and taking away his best friend’s ability to compete with him.
As soon as he does this, Gene regrets having ever tried to define himself in opposition to Finny, realizing that he doesn’t want to be Finny’s competitor, he wants to be Finny. In an act of private contrition, he begins dressing in Finny’s clothes while Finny recovers at home. One day, he looks in the mirror and feels a sense of relief because of how much he looks like Finny, thinking that he’ll never have to “stumble through the confusions of [his] own character again.” He has, therefore, gone from defining himself as Finny’s best friend to seeing himself as Finny’s competitor to, finally, trying to embody Finny himself, clearly thinking that he won’t have to come to terms with his own identity if he can simply inhabit Finny’s. But above all, what’s most clear throughout these transformations is that Gene is desperately grasping for a way to establish his own sense of self. No matter how he does this, though, he’s always defining himself in relation to Finny rather than maturing into his own person.
It’s worth mentioning that Gene isn’t the only person in the novel trying to come to terms with his identity. For instance, Leper decides to enlist in the military even though this contrasts with his gentle nature, and Brinker Hadley goes from being a model student to something of a rebel. In both cases, the boys undergo a series of reversals as they experiment with different ways of moving through the world. But what’s different about their process of identity formation is that they don’t depend on anyone else as they search for the kind of person they want to be, whereas everything Gene does relates to his bond with Finny. This is perhaps because his connection with Finny goes beyond that of a normal friendship, sometimes even bearing traces of romance, though Gene actively avoids considering this possibility, as does Knowles himself. And though the idea that Gene is attracted to Finny is historically controversial, it’s worth thinking about when contemplating the role that identity plays in the novel. After all, Gene tries hard to determine who he is, and he does so almost exclusively in relation to his bond with Finny. Whether or not this is because he loves Finny is ambiguous, but the fact of the matter is that he never allows himself to be his own person, even after Finny dies. Indeed, Gene continues to live in the “atmosphere” that he thinks Finny cultivated in life, meaning that he tragically never manages to actively construct his own sense of individuality.
Identity Quotes in A Separate Peace
This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age…[for] the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way.
Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence. Changed, I headed back through the mud. I was drenched; anybody could see it was time to come in out of the rain.
To keep silent about this amazing happening deepened the shock for me. It made Finny seem too unusual for—not friendship, but too unusual for rivalry. And there were few relationships among us at Devon not based on rivalry.
Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud. It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make. With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear of this forgotten.
So to Phineas I said, “I’m too busy for sports,” and he went into his incoherent groans and jumbles of words, and I thought the issue was settled until at the end he said, “Listen, pal, if I can’t play sports, you’re going to play them for me,” and I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas.
To enlist. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life […]. The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me.
It wasn’t the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.
You’d get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more. You’d make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war.
I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case.
I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there. Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone.